But where are you really from?

The ‘crisis’ of multiculturalism examined through the work of four Asian-Australian artists

Anna Edmundson

Table of Contents

Liu Xiao Xian’s other lives
Slippage number one: Australian monoculturalism
Hou Leong’s Crocodile Dundee
Slippage number two: Constructions of Australian identity
Owen Leong’s second skin
Slippage number three: Assimilation
Kate Beynon’s where is your original home?
Slippage number four: Australian multiculturalism
Conclusion: But where are you really from?

The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen a substantial shift in the ways in which issues of immigration, multiculturalism and citizenship have been debated in Australian political and public culture. As we near the end of this decade, ‘multiculturalism’ seems to be rapidly disappearing from government rhetoric (if not the political agenda altogether), with many analysts signalling a worldwide return to assimilation discourses.[1] In lieu of this, it is timely to unpack some issues related to the current ‘retreat’ of multiculturalism and proposed ‘return’ of assimilation.

In this article, I want to explore the relationship between government-led doctrines on cultural diversity and constructions of national identity.[2] I draw on the work of four artists of Asian-Australian descent,[3] Liu Xiao Xian, Hou Leong, Owen Leong and Kate Beynon, to highlight some of the failings of current models of both multiculturalism and assimilation to effectively secure a place for non-Anglo and non-Indigenous Australians within the national imaginary. I have selected a work from each artist to serve as a lens for exploring some of the slippages that occur between different understandings of citizenship and cultural diversity: as government policy, as a concept of national identity and as a lived experience.[4] In these works, the artists project a self-reflexive ‘otherness’ in relation to mainstream ‘Australianness’. They also convey a more personal feeling of unease stemming from their sense of invisibility within the national imaginary. Ultimately, the artists remind us that, despite the Australian Government’s attention to celebrating cultural difference, three decades of multiculturalism have failed to effectively shift the deeper historical structures and prejudices of Anglo-Australian (white) cultural hegemony.

During the course of my discussion, I try to pinpoint some of the reasons for this failure. First, I note that the transformation of the cultural landscape (from monocultural to multicultural) has been both rapid and radical, involving a major paradigm shift on government-led constructions of national identity. I draw on Jean Baudrillard’s concept of ‘simulacra’ as a useful means of exploring the persistence of older representations of identity. Second, I suggest that a decade of sidelining of multiculturalism and cultural difference by the Howard Government (1996–2007)—heightened by a climate of increased racial tension linked to the rise of international terrorism and attendant anti-terrorist rhetoric—is now reflected in increased public confusion about and ambivalence towards multiculturalism (for those of Anglo-Australian descent and those whom the anthropologist Ghassan Hage has termed ‘Third World-looking people’).[5] Third, I argue that while multiculturalism was first envisioned by the Whitlam Government as a means of equalising differences between ‘mainstream’ and migrant communities, it has in many ways served only to further entrench ethnicity as the primary platform of socio-cultural difference and social fragmentation.

I conclude by arguing that a retreat from cultural pluralism in favour of current models of assimilation is bound to fail—if its intent, as is claimed, is the fostering of social inclusion. Not withstanding the primacy of Indigenous Australia, the complexity of our population calls for a more sophisticated and more inclusive model of citizenship and national identity, not a less inclusive one. It should be possible to construct a platform for citizenship and narratives of national identity, which genuinely reflects unity within diversity, rather than one in which, a priori, some people are selected to be second-class citizens based purely on their perceived ethnicity.

Liu Xiao Xian’s other lives

The Ian Potter Centre—NGV Australian Art at Federation Square represents Australia’s only major cultural institution devoted exclusively to Australian art. As such, it denotes a different kind of take on Australian history—one in which an emerging vision of Australia can be seen through the eyes of its resident artists. Shortly after the opening of the Ian Potter Centre, I was surprised to find a work by one of my favourite artists in the colonial and Federation-era galleries. The work is by Liu Xiao Xian, a sculptor and photographer who was born in Beijing in 1963 and migrated to Australia in 1990. So what was it doing among the colonial portraits and ‘Heidelberg masters’ of early Australian art? Its inclusion by the gallery’s curators was at once witty and profound. As a curatorial intervention, it was effective in marking the physical presence of Chinese migrants during the time frame covered, while simultaneously highlighting their absence within the canonical (art) history.

The artwork appears at first glance to be a nineteenth-century stereograph print of the type that was widely popular during the Victorian era. Stereograph cameras produced a double print taken from slightly different focal points. When viewed through a wooden stereo-viewer, the prints merged to form a three-dimensional image. In Liu’s work, the left-hand print shows a woman of European descent formally dressed in late-Victorian attire. In the right-hand print, the artist has inserted himself into the image (and into the past) as the woman’s Asian doppelganger. The work, which is one of a larger series entitled My Other Lives, stems from Liu’s interest in the history of Chinese migrants in Australia, particularly during the goldrush era.[6] In this series, he has reworked old photographic portraits to appear as stereographs of typical Anglo-Australian family life during the colonial era with himself as the original sitter’s double.

Figure 7.1 Liu Xiao Xian, My Other Lives

Figure 7.1 Liu Xiao Xian, My Other Lives

Liu Xiao Xian, My Other Lives, Stereograph series #7, 2000; Lamda print, 100 x 150cm, edition of 10; Courtesy of the artist. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, purchased with funds arranged by Loti Smorgon for Contemporary Australian Photography, 2002.

According to the exegesis that accompanies the work:

Xiao Xian Liu, an Eastern man performs roles in a Western History - he is the wife at home - the child with a toy - the dashing young man with a penny farthing bicycle. These are his other lives. These are the ancestors whose lives we know only so much about.[7]

In Liu’s work, the juxtaposition of a European and Asian face is intended to reflect the invisibility of people of Asian origin in Australian history.[8] Walking past the ‘portrait’, one might not catch the subtle, almost ambiguous renderings of identity. When you do notice the insertion and consequent inversion, you become aware of the wider absence of Asian representations in Australian history and in wider notions of Australian identity.

The period, which marks the rise of a nationalist school of Australian art (the Heidelberg School), coincides with a time in which the government actively sought to prevent Chinese migration to Australia. The National Gallery of Victoria, Australia’s oldest art gallery, was established in 1861, just 10 years after the Victorian gold rush that brought substantial revenue to the colony and record numbers of Chinese migrants to the region. Although the ‘ancestors’ invoked by Liu’s Other Lives had been present in small numbers since early settlement, it was not until the mid-1800s that Chinese people reached sufficient numbers to become visible within Australian public culture. The Victorian and NSW goldfields attracted such substantial numbers of Chinese that by 1861 they made up 3.3 per cent of the total population.[9] Their presence alarmed colonial governments to such a degree that Victoria introduced legislation to restrict Chinese immigration in 1855; New South Wales did the same in 1861, Queensland in 1877 and Western Australia in 1886.[10] By 1901, the anti-Chinese lobby was led by some of the most prominent politicians of the day. Edmund Barton, Australia’s first prime minister and one of the major architects of Federation, stated at the time:

The doctrine of the equality of men was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman … Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else, will make some races equal to others.[11]

As Liu Xiao Xian reminds us, there are no artists of Chinese descent represented in the early annals of Australian art history because socially, and later legally, people of Chinese descent were excluded from the category ‘Australian’.




[1] See, for example, Brubaker, Rogers 2001, ‘The return of assimilation? Changing perspectives on immigration and its sequels in France, Germany, and the United States’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 24, July, pp. 531–48; Back, Les et al. 2002, ‘New Labour’s White Heart: Politics, multiculturalism and the return of assimilation’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 4, pp. 447-54; Haebich, Anna 2008, ‘Introduction’, Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950–1970, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Western Australia. For an excellent analysis of current debates surrounding the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’, see Lentin, Alana and Titley, Gavan 2008, Questioning the European ‘crisis of multiculturalism’, Presented to Questioning the European ‘Crisis of Multiculturalism’: An International Colloquium, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 12 December 2008, viewed 11 May 2009, <http://www.sussex.ac.uk/sociology/1-4-11.html> For a comprehensive Australian perspective see Geoffrey Brahm Levey 2008 (ed.), Political Theory and Australian Multiculturalism, Bergahn Books, New York, Oxford. The most noted critique of multiculturalism comes from Nathan Glazer in his 1997 publication (We Are All Multiculturalists Now, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.).

[2] Following Richard White, and Catriona Elder, I take from the outset that governments consciously manipulate constructions of citizenship and national identity as part of their governing strategy and that both multiculturalism and assimilation, as key organising principles of a government policy, have impacted directly on narratives of Australian identity. See Elder, Catriona 2007, Being Australian, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, New South Wales and White, Richard 1981, Inventing Australia: Images and identity 1688–1980, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

[3] I recognise that the term ‘Asian-Australian’ is an arbritrary one which may erroneously imply shared identity between people from substantially different geo-historical backgrounds. However in relation to this article the term is useful to denote a broad marker of identity which exists in opposition to the category ‘Anglo-Australian’. Liu Xiao Xian, Hou Leong, Owen Leong and Kate Beynon have very different personal histories, but they share some common experience as people with Asian ancestry who live in a multicultural nation dominated by Anglo-Australian cultural hegemony. Moreover, all four artists seek to express through their art practice the complexities of negotiating cultural identity in multicultural Australia.

[4] I should note that this is not an art-history paper. Rather, I am interested in these works as personal and political narratives, which tell a larger story.

[5] Hage, Ghassan 1998, White Nation: Fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society, Pluto Press, Annandale, New South Wales, p. 18ff.

[6] Raffel, Suhanya 2007, Binary Vision: My other lives Liu Xiao Xian, Exhibition commentary, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, 6–29 June 2007, cited on Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia website, viewed 14 April 2009, <http://www.cacsa.org.au/publications/broadsheet/BS_v30no3/bs_07.pdf>

[7] Stills Gallery 2001, My Other Lives, Liu Xiao Xian, Exhibition commentary, Stills Gallery, Sydney, 14 February – 10 March 2001, cited on Stills Gallery website, viewed 18 February 2009, <http://www.stillsgallery.com.au/exhibitions/2001/index.php?obj_id=2001_02&nav=3>

[8] Ibid.

[9] ‘Explore the Harvest of Endurance Scroll—Australian goldrush’, National Museum of Australia website, viewed 15 April 2009, <http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/collection_interactives/harvest_of_endurance_html_version/> See also ‘The Australian goldrush’, Australian Government Culture and Recreation Portal, viewed 15 April 2009, <http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/goldrush/>

[10] ‘Explore the Harvest of Endurance Scroll—Anti-Chinese violence; Lambing Flat riots’.

[11] Barton, Edmund 1901, Committee Debate on the Immigration Restriction Bill, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 26 September 1901, p. 5233.